Sao Nicolau is a paradise for nature lovers. The spectacular green valleys and mountains in the west of the island make this a great hiking destination. You can also enjoy mountain biking. Sao Nicolau is also a versatile and unspoilt island. You will find many charming little villages with colored houses. There are a few beautiful beaches and undiscovered places where you can dive and surf. And the most special thing is that this place is really authentic. The locals are friendly and welcoming. And they are very attached to their rich traditions. Especially the fishermen and farmers. On this island you can deviate from the beaten track and enjoy the authentic Cape Verde.
Want to know more about Sao Nicolau?
Spending your holiday on Sao Nicolau is great. On this page will share with you what you can expect and what to see on Sao Nicolau. We have collected the most interesting places and other relevant information about Sao Nicolau for you. This page is divided as follows:
- Sights Sao Nicolau
- Food & drinks
- Where to stay on Sao Nicolau?
- Best time to visit Sao Nicolau
- Transportation and getting around
- Frequently asked questions
Sao Nicolau is one of the least visited islands of the Cape Verde Islands. It was discovered by the Portuguese in 1461, along with the surrounding islands of Sao Vicente and Santo Antao. The island is named after Saint Nicholas. In total there are approximately 13,000 inhabitants. The life on Sao Nicolau is in general relatively simple. The mountainous island has fertile soil in the west and the lower areas in the east are very dry. At the foot of the mountain range you will find sugar cane and coffee plantations. This is characteristic of Sao Nicolau. Many bananas, oranges, papayas and beans also grow there. The rocky island is about 45 by 20 kilometers in size with the highest point at an altitude of over 1,300 meters (Monte Gordo). The main town is Ribeira Brava with about 8,000 inhabitants.
Sights Sao Nicolau
National park Monte Gordo
The National Park Monte Gordo is located in the west of the island and has a very important ecological function. Since 2007 it has been a protected nature reserve of over 950 hectares with the highest point the mountain Monto Gordo (1,312 meters). The nature reserve includes forests, rivers and a rich flora and fauna. The very rich biodiversity is unique in the Cape Verde island. It is dry in the north and northeast of the park. And in the south and southeast of the Monte Gordo park there are more humid areas. Partly caused by the fog and rising rain clouds. No less than 32 endemic plant species grow in the park, the majority are endangered. In addition, you can also find the rare and famous Dragon Blood tree. This endangered tree is one of the oldest tree species and is only found in Macaronesia. The trees can be found mainly on the slopes of the mountain to the northeast at an altitude of 500 meters. The special area is endorsed by the fact that the area is also included as one of the seven natural wonders of the Cape Verde islands.
You can make several impressive walks in the Monte Gordo National Park. There are good hiking trails in the unspoilt area where also people live. Hiking trails are generally well signposted. One of the most beautiful walks is to the top of the Monto Gordo mountain. During a climb of this mountain you are almost guaranteed to walk with your head above the clouds. In the visitor center you can request various information about the park, such as a map and information about the park. You can also hire a guide here. The visitor center is located on the edge of the town of Cachaço.
Travel back in time in Ribeira Brava
Ribeira Brava is the capital of Sao Nicolau located on the slope of a mountain and only a few kilometers from the airport. Ribeira Brava is a quiet place where only a limited number of people live. Especially during carnival (February) this place comes to life. Ribeira Brava is a colorful and an interesting place to visit. There are many colonial houses in all kinds of beautiful colors. Houses of green, pastel and blue with beautiful green gardens. The town is located between green valleys, so there are many narrow and steep alleys. In the small streets you will find many nice and characteristic shops. In the center is the impressive cathedral Nossa Senhorado Rosario from the 17th century. The cathedral is built in the Portuguese style.
West of Ribeira Brava are a few continuous valleys of the central mountain massif of Sao Nicolau. The landscape is really beautiful. The valleys are green and the soil fertile. It is nice to drive past the small villages in this area.
Healing powers at Tarrafal
Tarrafal is the coastal town with the island’s main port. And because of its location against the bare hills it can be very hot in the summer. Temperatures above 35 degrees are measured regularly. In Tarrafal it is all about the harbour. The ferry, freighters and the colorful fishing boats that bring their catch to the shore. There is a lot of liveliness around the harbour.
It is not just the harbor that Tarrafal is known for. The sand on the beaches around Tarrafel is said to have healing powers. In the black sand beach titanium appears to contain iodine. Symptoms that occur in rheumatism and osteoarthritis are relieved by this. Especially most effective in the summer months. The beaches at Tarrafal are sometimes deserted, but sometimes also relatively busy. If you prefer a white sand beach, head a few miles south. Between the rocks you have the fine sandy beach Praia de Baixo Rocha. In season, turtles also come here to bury their eggs.
Rock formations of Carbeirinho
About 16 kilometers from the town of Tarrafal is a gigantic cave and rocks that has been given a special shape by the weather. The cliffs have different colors and are surrounded by green vegetation. In the cave and rocks flow fresh water springs that keep the humidity high in the area. Carbeirinho is located in a bay with a beautiful black sand beach. It is a favorite place for locals to recreate on weekends. The natural phenomenon of Carbeirinho is one of the seven wonders of Cape Verde. The natural heritage of the archipelago.
The deserted east of the island
Almost nobody lives in the east of the island and it attracts few visitors. This part of the island is mostly desert with boulders and rocks. The landscapes are beautiful. Plants hardly grow here, this was different decades ago. With the help of agricultural techniques, crops were grown here everywhere. The overgrown agricultural terraces and abandoned houses are the remains of this time. There are two small villages in the area: Juncalinho and Carrical. These villages are accessible by alugueres. If you want to explore the area further, we recommend a 4×4 car and a guide / driver. For a refreshing dip you can go to the natural swimming pool at Juncalinho. This lagoon is a 5 minute drive from the village.
The sea is rich in fish. Many companies in the port of Tarrafal rely on sea fishing. In the sea you will also find many beautiful fish species such as: the blue marlin, wahoo, yellowfin tuna, sailfish, dorade, white marlin, amberjack and the spearfish. And the sea around Sao Nicolau and the neighboring island of Sao Vicente are even top spots for blue marlin. And they are big! They can weigh as much as 500 kilograms. If you want to know more about fishing, there is a nice fishing museum in Tarrafal. You can also join a local fishing boat. The best places to find a fisherman are in the towns of Tarrafal and Prequica. If you want to fish with a boat yourself, there are organizations that rent out a boat and offer guidance. Arrange this well in advance.
There are several excellent hiking trails on Sao Nicolau (partly also for mountain bike). Straight through the green valley of Faja and the lava-carved plains around Mount Bissau. Or along the charming places in and around Ribeira Brava. The important hiking trails are about 70 kilometers long. So plenty of choice. The hikes on Sao Nicolau are not inferior to the hikes you can do on the island of Santo Antao. It has a good international reputation for beautiful hiking treks. By far the most beautiful hikes can be done inland in the Monte Gordo National Park. One of the whikes in this park leads past dense coniferous forests and eucalyptus trees towards the coffee plantations in the old volcano crater. If you walk to the top of the mountain you have a great view over the island. And with a bit of luck you can also see a number of neighboring islands of the Cape Verde archipelago.
In addition to the hiking trails in the Monte Gordo National Park, there are many other trails to recommend. For example in the middle of the island. There is a beautiful route where you can look into the crater of a volcano that is no longer active. Or a route where you walk through various colorful plantations during the descent to the coast. Along the way you can see everything growing here. From oranges to papayas. The large amount of versatile hiking trails makes Sao Nicolau one of the best islands in Cape Verde for hiking.
If you want to hike together, you can participate in the annual Cape Verde trekking festival. This is held every year in November. You will discover impressive paths with fellow hikers and you can participate in cultural activities.
Food and drinks
The number of places where you can eat and drink is not very large. So it is sometimes a bit more of a challenge. You can also go to many pensions and other accommodations to eat, even if you do not spend the night there yourself. Do not expect very extensive meals. Often they are daily specials and are hearty in nature. You can always order fresh fish from the menu. Another local specialty is ‘molho’. This dish consists of goat meat, potatoes, onions, cornmeal and rice. Restaurant Pasta Alice (also a guest house) located in Tarrafal is recommended if you want real Cape Verdean food. In Ribeira Brava, the restaurants Recanto (fish) and Churaasqueira Ponte Vermelho (grill) are also recommended.
Where to stay on Sao Nicolau?
There are only a limited number of accommodations where you can spend the night on Sao Nicolau. Mainly in simple guesthouses or homestays. Given that the number of accommodation options is limited, we recommend that you book on time. The most accomodations can be find in in Ribeira Brava and Tarrafal. You can also spend the night in villages like Perguinca and Juncalinho, but the options are very limited.
Based on price, location and amenities, the following accommodations on Sao Nicolau are recommended. Zena Star has excellent ratings, and the accommodation also has a restaurant. Alice is a good place to spend the night in Tarrafal. In Tarrafal you can find Casa Aquirio. A nice place to stay the night and located by the sea.
Best time to visit Sao Nicolau
For the carnival you come to Sao Nicolau in February. And if you want to participate in the annual hiking festival, travel to the island in November. The weather is pleasant all year round on Sao Nicolau. There is a desert climate with an average daytime temperature of around 25 degrees Celsius. Summers are usually warm and winters are a few degrees cooler. In summer, expect an average daytime temperature of 27 degrees Celsius. In the higher located places the temperature is a few degrees lower. You can expect the most rain in September. And the dry period is from January to July. In short, the best travel time is between the months of October and June with a fairly constant and pleasant climate.
Transportation and getting around
Via a domestic flight from Sal, Sao Vicente or Santiago you can get to the local airport Prequica Airport (SNE). There are no international flights arriving at Sao Nicolau Airport. Flights depart several times a week. If there is a strong wind, a flight may be canceled. The descent to the airport of Sao Nicolau is surprisingly beautiful, because the plane flies past a volcano crater. View the page with flight tickets for all current flight information. From the airport you are in the city within 10 minutes. A taxi ride costs approximately 6 – 8 euros. You can also take an aluguer, these are a lot cheaper.
Sao Nicolau is also accessible by ferry, but the journey is less comfortable. Every week a few ferries sail between the ports of Tarrafal and Mindelo (Sao Vicente) or Praia (Santiago). The sailing time from/to Sao Vincente is about 6 hours and to Santiago over 13 hours. Between Sao Nicolau and Sao Vicente you can also join a cargo boat, there are only limited places available for this.
For public transport on the island you can use the aluguer (local minibuses). The alugueres drive between the important villages on the island. From the airport in Ribeira Brava to the eastern town of Juncalinho. In Ribeira Brava you can find the aluguers on the main square. They drive back and forth to Tarrafal a few times a day. Travel time is approximately 50 minutes. To the eastern towns of Juncalinho and Carrical, the alugueres go less frequently and then drive via Tarrafal and Ribeira Plata. You can also hire the alugueres as a taxi, the price is of course a lot higher. Traveling together as a group in an aluguer is most beneficial.
Renting a car is also possible on Sao Nicolau. A number of local car rental companies are located in Ribeira Brava. There are some areas where you have to drive on bad roads. We definitely recommend a 4×4 for this.
Frequently asked questions
If you are a hiker you can enjoy yourself for a few days or longer. Then add some extra time if you want to spend sightseeing and/or relaxing. If you are not a hiker, then 2 or 3 days should be enough to explore the island properly.
Part of the coastline of Sao Nicolau is difficult to reach. There are a number of beaches west of Tarrafal such as Praia Grande and Praia Branca that are easily accessible and a great place to be. Small and beautiful beaches are for example Praia de Baixo (near Tarrafal) and Porto da Lapa (near Juncalinho).
There are beautiful hikes for all levels of difficulty. From easy to more hard ones in the east of the island. The most common hikes take between 1 and 5 hours. Depending on the route.